Giuseppe Vajra first walked through the doors at the shop where I spend my days about four or five years ago. He couldn’t have been much more than nineteen at the time, making his way around the US on his first trip as emissary of his family’s estate. It must have been an awkward baptism, as he wasn’t old enough, legally here in the US, to taste his own wines even though it was his responsibility to show and discuss them with clients. Logistics aside, like so many other young men and women of his generation who happened to have been born into wine growing families, Giuseppe, on that first trip, was still undecided as to whether he saw his future in wine.
As a guy roughly twice Giuseppe’s age, come relatively late to the wine business, it’s all too easy for me to look on his situation with awe, even with a touch of envy. How great would it be to inherit beautiful vineyards and a winery in Barolo – or almost anywhere for that matter? Going back through time and putting myself in nineteen year-old shoes, though, and imagining (theoretically) my own father talking of passing along “the family business” to me, Giuseppe’s trepidation was clearly justified. The call of the new and different, of the city, of exploring things away from home – even of rebellion – must certainly have been great.
When I saw Giuseppe again two or three years ago, he had taken a couple of steps toward a decision but was still somewhat unsure. Meeting him for a third time, just last week, it’s now clear where Giuseppe’s future and, yes, his heart, lay. When he speaks about the family winery, still headed by his father Aldo Vajra, it’s clear that Giuseppe is speaking in we terms, is thinking of how he’ll carry on – or even change – the work that Aldo does today. In speaking of Aldo, Giuseppe said, “The more my father ages, the less he wants to do to the wines.” It’s a lovely expression of the constantly evolving, increasingly natural approach to winemaking at the Vajra estate. And as Giuseppe spoke of their continuing adoption of biodynamic techniques, of their positive approach to minimizing the use of sulfur in the wine making regime and of the terroirs that make up the estate, it was again clear that he was thinking in terms of “we,” not just “he.” Giuseppe’s become more than a spokesperson, that’s for sure. Given that he’s named after his grandfather, Giuseppe Domenico Vajra, whose name still appears on the family’s wines, he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting path.
As on his first visit some five years ago, Giuseppe was passing through to show the current releases of the estate. Here’s a look at what he poured for us.
Langhe Rosso, G. D. Vajra 2006 (13% alcohol)
To some, the idea of a blended wine being produced in the Langhe district of Piedmont automatically equates to modernism. Vajra’s Langhe Rosso, though, is far from a “Super Piemontese” red. Instead, plain and simple, it’s the most basic, casual wine produced at the estate. A young vine cuvée destined for youthful drinking (although it does age surprisingly well), its blend varies from year-to-year based on the natural production cycle of any given vintage. The 2006 Langhe Rosso is a blend of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera, plus very small amounts – about 5% each – of Pinot Noir, Freisa and Albarossa. The latter vine, Albarossa, was originally created by Professor Giovanni Dalmasso when, in 1938, he crossed Barbera with a local mutation of Nebbiolo called Chatus. Albarossa turned out to give less elegant wines than hoped for on its own but serves as a useful blending agent, providing violet color and crispy texture. The wine? Full of bright red, punchy fruit. Lively mouthfeel and a slightly sweet/tart/tropical nose. Delicate tannins, refreshing acidity and easygoing light-to-medium body make it a versatile pour.
Dolcetto d’Alba, G. D. Vajra 2007 (13.5% alcohol)
Radiantly violet/purple in the glass. Giuseppe thinks of it as blue. Lovely, crunchy tannins follow a mouthful of dark red cherries, plums and inky minerality. One of the most fruit-forward expressions of Dolcetto I’ve had from Vajra, although it almost always does start out fruity in its youth and then develops subtlety with age. In the winery, it is put through a very quick cold stabilization to fix its vibrant colors and to partially forestall Dolcetto’s tendency to throw high quantities of sediment. If you’re a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc fan, you owe it to yourself to try this.
Barbera d’Alba Superiore, G. D. Vajra 2006 (14% alcohol)
Bottled just a week before Giuseppe’s trip, this is a brooding, muscular style of Barbera, with tannic extract playing against Barbera’s natural acidity and showing off the vine’s balancing act between rusticity and refinement. Tautly wrapped blueberry and blackberry fruit, touched by a bit of wood spice. Aged in old tonneau and 2500-liter casks. Giuseppe described it as less juicy than the 2007 and less classic than the 2004 but perfectly balanced. At seven to ten years of age, he thinks this will become more mineral, floral and herbal in character. For now, it’s a mouthful of intensity that would pair well with braised meat dishes or perhaps a dish of beef cheek ravioli.
Langhe Nebbiolo, G. D. Vajra 2006 (13.5% alcohol)
This was Giuseppe’s go-to “college wine” during the past year, what he poured for his roommates at University to help compensate for his lack of cooking abilities. A great food wine it is. Although in my experience this wine can age better than most “basic” Langhe Nebbiolo, G. recommends drinking it in its first three-to-four years for maximum enjoyment. This is Nebbiolo fermented and aged only in steel, produced primarily from fruit grown in a southwest-facing parcel called “Gesso” located at the foot of Bricco delle Viole and from the young vines in the Vajra’s recently acquired property in Sinio, just outside of the Barolo zone on the outskirts of Serralunga d’Alba. The wine is in a great spot right now, full of violet, rose petal and red licorice aromas. Finely detailed and long on the palate. No lack of nuance. Every bit a fine example of a “poor man’s Barolo.”
Barolo “Albe,” G. D. Vajra 2004 (14% alcohol)
“Albe” is Vajra’s young vine Barolo, produced from 20 year-old vines in the vineyards La Volta, Coste and Fossati, all on the hillsides in Vergne, perched above the town of Barolo itself. After a 20-day fermentation and maceration, the wine is aged in traditional botte of Slovanian oak along with a small amount of tonneau and 50-hectoliter barrels. Bottled only two months ago, it’s very tight, with a firm tannic structure and a nose full of tar and black earth. It needs about a year before it starts to show its real stuff. This and their Freisa called “Kyè” are the two wines, Giuseppe feels, that change the most from year to year.
Barolo “Bricco delle Viole,” G. D. Vajra 2004 (14% alcohol)
The Bricco delle Viole vineyard was planted by Aldo’s grandfather (Giuseppe’s great-grandfather) in 1949. 1978 was Aldo’s first vintage. His 2004 is already beautiful wine, showing more forward, elegant aromas than “Albe” but with much greater structural intensity, balance and finesse on the palate. Really beautiful wine. Drink it now for contemplative study if you will, but better to save it for a rainy day some year in the future. The ’04 Bricco delle Viole went through a 30-day fermentation and maceration, followed by aging primarily in 2500-liter casks. 8700 bottles produced.
Moscato d’Asti, G. D. Vajra 2007 (5.5% alcohol)
What better way to refresh after tasting a bunch of tannic, high-acid reds? Beer maybe? I’m not so sure. Vajra’s Moscato is a benchmark – joyously fruity and damn delicious year in and year out. In 2007, it was Giuseppe’s baby to tend to in the winery. It’s the quickest job start to finish but the most labor intensive in terms of the amount of attention required. Giuseppe spent at least one night in the winery after staying so late that he was inadvertently locked out of the house. I’m betting he drank some for breakfast the next morning, maybe with a little zabaglione.